Scrappy Denver entrepreneur honored by SBA

By on May 10, 2017
Terry Weaver, left, explains USA Gypsum's operation to Tony Leta, director of the SBA Eastern Pennsylvania district office.

Terry Weaver, left, explains USA Gypsum’s operation to Tony Leta, director of the SBA Eastern Pennsylvania district office. Photo by Dick Wanner

On Wednesday, May 3, a squadron of G-men in suits and ties moved in on the USA Gypsum home office just north of Blainsport on Route 897. They were there to see Terry Weaver, the company’s founder and CEO Richard Sauder, who’s been Weaver’s right-hand man for the past 17 years, and Mike Leininger, a farmer, friend and an enthusiastic supporter of Weaver’s company and the products it produces.

The government men were with the U.S. Small Business Administration, and their job for that day was to honor Weaver with an award for being the Eastern Pennsylvania Entrepreneurial Success story of 2017.

It’s a story that began in the year 2000, when Michael Brubaker, an agronomist who owned an agricultural consulting firm, offered to sell a small sideline — equipment and a customer base for recycled drywall — to Weaver. Brubaker may or may not have been thinking about a move to politics at the time, Weaver said. Brubaker did go on to elected office both in the Pennsylvania House and Senate. He is now retired from politics and currently serves as president of Blackford Ventures LLC, a private equity firm headquartered in Lancaster.

Weaver credited Brubaker with noticing, in his ag consulting work, that soil tests were showing a steady decline in the amount of sulfur in farm fields. Farmers need plenty of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium — N, P and K — to grow healthy crops, but their soils also need a host of micro-nutrients, like boron, aluminum, copper, zinc, and many other residents of the periodical table of the elements.

Plant scientists often rank sulfur right behind NPK in terms of its importance to field crops. What Brubaker noticed in the field was the result of government efforts to reduce air pollution. As fossil fuels were made cleaner and cleaner over the years, sulfur emissions into the atmosphere were reduced, acid rain — so-called because of the sulfuric acid it contained — became less acidic and field crops in many parts of the Northeast were affected by a deficiency of soil-borne sulfur.

Gypsum is a non-toxic mineral composed of calcium, sulfate and water. It is mined in 17 states in the U.S. and has many uses, from plaster casts to fertilizer. Drywall is a kind of sandwich made from gypsum-as-plaster, air, and two sheets of paper attached to the solid middle with edible glue on each surface of the plaster sheet.

What Brubaker did on a small scale — getting rid of the paper and grinding the gypsum into powder and granules — Weaver now does in a big way.

In the process, USA Gypsum is rerouting hundreds of tons of wallboard scraps that might otherwise end up in landfills, grinding them up, and turning them into products with many uses in industry and agriculture. Farmers use gypsum for livestock bedding, poultry litter and, especially, fertilizer and soil amendments.

Weaver pointed out that the operation only uses clean — as opposed to demolition — drywall scrap. Clean scrap is created when builders cut holes out of solid sheets of drywall to accommodate doors and windows, and plumbing and electrical lines.

Leininger, a fifth-generation Lancaster County farmer, sold the abandoned feed mill and the land it sits on to Weaver in 2015. He lives in the farmhouse he grew up in, just across Route 897 from USA Gypsum headquarters. Leininger uses state-of-the-art GPS planting and harvesting equipment that tells him almost to the square foot what’s going on in each of the 500 acres he farms. He conducted an experiment last year to see if the yield increase of corn was worth the expense of spreading 500 pounds of gypsum to the acre on his best ground when it was compared to no gypsum on ground that was just as good. The yield difference was 38 bushels to the acre, worth $70, or a $50 increased income per acre resulting from a $20 application of gypsum. The $20 figure included both the cost of the material and the labor and machine time to spread it.

Weaver, Leininger and Sauder assembled with the SBA contingent in the conference room of the modest USA Gypsum office building. One by one, the SBA people told Weaver what they liked about his business — the fact that Weaver and company had persevered through some lean early years, the positive impact USA Gypsum has on the environment, the fact that the plant provides good jobs for 10 people, and other factors.

They also expressed their appreciation for his reliance on SBA affiliated resources like the Small Business Development Center at Kutztown University and the Lancaster chapter of SCORE. His SCORE contact, Lou Davenport, a retired Armstrong World Industries financial executive, has been with him pretty much from the beginning.

Weaver accepted the accolades on behalf of his crew and expressed confidence that recycling — not just of gypsum, but of many other components of a throwaway society — is a bright promise for both the environment and the economy.

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